The best Spike Lee movies, ranked

The best Spike Lee movies, ranked

In a career that’s seen him move from young provocateur to elder statesman, Spike Lee has never wavered in his cinematic vision — even when it hasn’t fit neatly into Hollywood’s plans. Check out EW’s list of the iconic director’s greatest works.

By Elliott Smith February 03, 2023 at 05:30 PM EST

For nearly 40 years, Spike Lee has been an unflinching cinematic presence, consistently delivering his razor-sharp perspective to the big screen. Starting with his electric debut, She’s Gotta Have It, Lee has forged an iconoclastic career that has seen him weather controversy, nimbly adjust to industry changes, and, eventually, become an Oscar winner.

Lee’s always remained true to himself and has never been afraid to speak his mind or challenge the status quo through his art. His early films were unapologetic in their Blackness, tackling subjects rarely broached in major studio productions. his stylistic flourishes (including his classic dolly shot) have become legendary, even as some of his later releases moved closer to mainstream Hollywood without sacrificing quality.

While Lee may have started as a brash auteur, he’s now considered among the greatest American directors, a singular voice who helped pave the way for the next generation of Black actors, writers, and directors. We may never see another director like Spike Lee. Fortunately, this one-of-a-kind visionary is still going strong. Let’s explore the New York helmer’s slate of eclectic feature “joints” in order from good to greatest.

18. Oldboy (2013)

Remakes are tough. And they are almost impossible when it comes to a film with as much of a cult pedigree as South Korean director Park Chan-wook‘s 2003 stunner Oldboy. Several different parties circled around an American Hollywood remake for years, but Lee signed on for the unenviable task. And while there’s no beating the source material, his film certainly has its pleasures, including a strong performance from Josh Brolin and Lee’s direction, with EW’s critic declaring that  “he’s made the first American film that fully conjures the perverse, loco charge of a sadomasochistic Asian revenge drama.”

The twisty, tragic tale of revenge finds Brolin’s character locked away for 20 years without any knowledge of why he’s been imprisoned. He molds himself into a figure ready for revenge, only to one day wake up completely free and tasked with finding out the reason he was captured in the first place. To say any more would spoil the film’s secrets — it’s truly something you have to see for yourself. However, Lee was apparently unhappy with having to cut an hour out of his vision, with producers changing his closing credit to a “Spike Lee Film” instead of his signature “joint.”

16. Get on the Bus (1996)

The Million Man March was a critical event in the Black community, bringing men together from across the nation to “convey to the world a vastly different picture of the Black male” and advocate for themselves in the country’s political epicenter. It makes perfect sense then that Lee would seize the opportunity to chronicle the movement in his own unique style, with EW’s critic noting, “Who better than America’s leading Black filmmaker to spin the many knotty threads of that dramatic, emotional, provocative expression of male African-American unity into a vibrant skein?” This film, released one year after the march, brings together 15 different Black men on their way to Washington, D.C., each with their own reason for attending the demonstration.

There aren’t too many of Lee’s stylistic flourishes thanks to it primarily taking place on a Greyhound bus (hence the title), and no appearance of Lee himself, being the first film he directs without making a cameo. But the strength of Get on the Bus lies in the observant screenplay by Reggie Rock Blythewood and the work of a talented cast, including Charles S. Dutton, Ossie Davis, Bernie Mac, and Andre Braugher.

15. School Daze (1988)

The Black college experience gets the Lee treatment in this audacious musical that doesn’t shy away from controversial elements of race. Based loosely on Black colleges like Morehouse and Spelman (the former of which Lee is an alum), School Daze‘s story follows a homecoming weekend feud between Greek life students and their peers, touching on colorism, hair politics, elitism, hazing, and so much more amid some colorful musical numbers.

The film led to heated debates within the Black community, but in retrospect, Lee’s desire to touch the third rail on several provocative issues makes for a compelling — if somewhat messy — dramedy with plenty to still enjoy. Plus, you can never be mad at a movie that gave the world the song “Da Butt” and Laurence Fishburne yelling “WAKE UP!!!”

14. Crooklyn (1994)

Lee wistfully recalls his childhood in a simpler New York through Crooklyn, a semi-autobiographical film that marks the director’s rare foray into PG-13 territory. Co-written with two of his siblings (Joie and Cinqué), the movie explores the world of 9-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris), who lives with her boisterous family in a Brooklyn neighborhood filled with an array of offbeat people and plenty of hard-to-swallow life lessons.

Crooklyn is very often a beautiful, intimate coming-of-age portrait of Blackness, specifically Black girlhood, and one where New York again is just as much a character as a living backdrop. But for all its merits, there are some aspects that distance it from Lee’s greatest works. One of which is his choice to film Troy’s visits to her Southern family with an anamorphic lens to identify with the child’s unease, and it still remains a controversial choice for how it left the visuals squeezed and gauzy. Crooklyn as a whole also doesn’t have the urgency or rhetoric of a typical Lee film, but its successes resonate through its universal themes of growing up, loss, and family.

12. Chi-Raq (2015)

Some of Lee’s later films haven’t clicked with audiences or critics, but this wildly ambitious mix of musical, comedy, and drama — based on the Greek play Lysistrata, no less — was a welcome surprise to his canon and proof that Lee could still deliver the goods. Unfortunately, it was lost in the shuffle on Prime Video after a brief theatrical release, but as EW’s A-rated review states, it nevertheless “sledgehammers away on hot buttons while also lacquering itself in layers of gray, and planting within its core, for anyone with the eyes to see it, a classic message of hope.”

On the south side of Chicago, two warring gangs are entrenched in a never-ending battle. But when Lysistrata (a radiant Teyonah Parris), a gang leader’s girlfriend, organizes a sex strike between the two factions, their actions spark a worldwide protest against violence. Featuring fantastic work from Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, and John Cusack, Chi-Raq bursts off the screen with energy and purpose.

13. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

A love letter to the music Lee has always championed, Mo’ Better Blues is an atmospheric drama anchored by captivating performances from Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, whose charisma helps offset some of the questionable elements in the milder story compared with Lee’s many heavy hitters.

Washington stars as successful trumpet player “Bleek” Gilliam, who is navigating the ambition of his band’s sax player (Snipes), his two girlfriends (Joie Lee and Cynda Williams), and his ne’er-do-well manager (Lee). The story goes as you might predict, but the film is lifted by the combination of the performances, the stirring jazz music from Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard, and some of the strongest visuals of Lee’s career.

10. Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Criminally overlooked during awards season (as is Lee’s recurring reprimanding), this Vietnam-set film (his first for Netflix) is the director doing what he does best: mixing disparate elements like a war epic, buddy comedy, father-son drama, and social justice commentary into something powerful and of the moment. “Directed by a filmmaker who remains in total control of his once-in-a-generation gifts and utilizes them to synthesize story and history into something new,” says EW’s A- review, Da 5 Bloods also holds a bittersweet note as Chadwick Boseman‘s final film released before his untimely passing.

Delroy Lindo stars as the leader of a group of Vietnam vets who, upon returning to the country to recover a stash of gold they buried 40 years ago, discover that the road to riches is anything but easy. Lindo was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination, as he delivers one of the best performances ever found in a Lee film. Even at two-plus hours, Da 5 Bloods never lags, aided in part by Lee’s playful camera ratios, which create a distinctive look throughout the eras.

10. Clockers (1995)

Another underrated gem in Lee’s filmography is this street-level thriller adapted from Richard Price‘s novel of the same name. Originally slated to be directed by Martin Scorsese, who stayed on as a producer, Lee’s version — which EW’s 1996 review called his “most complex, reined-in, and mature work to date” — remains relatively faithful to the book, seeing the director “subordinating his flashy film-school moves to the demands of narrative, creating an unsettling, moving portrait of a world where everyone carries his own heroes and villains within himself.” 

Mekhi Phifer stars as Strike, a low-level drug dealer working for the menacing Rodney (Delroy Lindo). When Strike gets involved in the murder of another dealer, he draws the attention of two dogged cops (Harvey Keitel and John Turturro) and the ire of the neighborhood. It’s a slow burn, but one where Lee leverages a small-scale incident and spreads it into a commentary of the larger scale issues that plague the inner city.

11. He Got Game (1998)

Even the most casual cinema-goers know how much Lee loves basketball, so it should come as no surprise that he turned his eye to hoops with this father-son drama that also takes aim at the corrupt college recruiting system. It’s a bit long and a little overstuffed with ideas, but it’s also one of the director’s most accessible films.

Lee coaxes a solid performance out of acting neophyte Ray Allen as high school basketball star Jesus Shuttlesworth, while Denzel Washington, as usual, is amazing as his father Jake, whose release from prison hinges on his son’s signing to the governor’s alma mater. All sorts of familiar sports faces show up along the way, from Shaquille O’Neal to Jim Brown, as Jesus embarks on the wild (and woefully flawed) world of college recruiting. The less said about the subplot with Milla Jovovich as a sex worker with the heart of gold, the better, but the basketball-family drama works perfectly.

9. Summer of Sam (1999)

The best Spike Lee movies tend to have a strong focal point, often one of social commentary, for the director to hone in. On the surface, Summer of Sam would seem to be just that— a grimy New York tale about the summer of 1997, when a serial killer left the city in fear. But this earlier Lee work is one of the exceptions to that previous rule. As EW’s initial review put it, this is “Lee is at his most bombastic… he attempts to link the disco glitz of Studio 54, the punk scene of CBGB, the ethnic insularity of Italian Americans, the bloody shooting spree of a madman who taunted the police, the effect of sizzling heat on city asphalt, and sexual problems… into one rattling chain of urban hysteria.” But for viewers who revel in narrative chaos — and classic Lee’s style — perhaps that juggling act isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

The film revolves around old friends Vinny (John Leguizamo), a philandering hairdresser struggling to keep his marriage afloat, and Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who returns to the neighborhood after a long absence as a full-fledged punk, replete with mohawk and faux accent. Their stories converge with that of madman David Berkowitz to create a sweaty, lurid film that gleefully teeters into guilty pleasure territory. As a side note, this was Lee’s first film to feature a primarily white cast.

8. Jungle Fever (1991)

Even as a budding director, Lee was never one to stray from controversy. And in his fifth film, even the title was enough to merit a double-take. Jungle Fever centers on an affair between a married Black career man and his white secretary, though their respective friends are far more concerned with the interracial aspect of their relationship than the extramarital one. 

Wesley Snipes — whose character is saddled with the unbelievable name of Flipper Purify — and Annabella Sciorra star as the pair of star-crossed lovers, painting a tender yet tumultuous affair with ripple effects in the Black and Italian communities to which they belong. Lee doesn’t pull any punches on either side, and the film can feel strident at times. But, as usual, Lee’s perceptive work as a screenwriter and director shines through, and is further buoyed by amazing work from Samuel L. Jackson in one of his earliest roles and one Halle Berry‘s big-screen debut.

7. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

While Lee’s first feature film is raw, there’s no mistaking the talent at work, and it marked a seismic shift in both American independent cinema and for the work of Black filmmakers. For the shoestring budget of $175,000, Lee created a film that, in 2019, was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry.

The simple story of a woman (Tracy Camilla Johns), who enjoys her romantic freedom by juggling three very different men — including Lee’s Mars Blackmon, later known as a Nike pitchman — is frank in its sexual politics and steadfast in presenting everyday, true-to-life Black characters after decades of stereotypical portrayals in film. Lee would later return to his career opener with the Netflix TV series of the same name.

6. Inside Man (2006)

It’s always exciting when Lee brings his skill and vision to what, for him, would be considered “non-traditional” film genres. Inside Man‘s knuckle-biting heist thriller would turn out to be Lee’s biggest box office success — and a clear example that the director can elevate even the most basic of plots. It also helps that he once again had Denzel Washington in his corner, this time with Clive Owen and Jodie Foster in tow.

Washington stars as an NYPD hostage negotiator, called in to help prevent any harm to the people held captive by Russell (Owen) and his crew, while Foster enters the picture as a “fixer” to the mysterious founder of the bank (Christopher Plummer). The pieces of the puzzle all come together nicely in the film’s twist ending, forming what EW’s original review called “a hybrid of studio action pic and Spike Lee joint. Or else it’s a cross between a 2006 Spike Lee joint and a 1970s-style movie indictment of urban unease.” Note: Stay far, far away from the direct-to-streaming sequel that came out in 2019.

5. Bamboozled (2000)

It’s safe to say that 20 years ago, audiences were definitely not ready for a pitch-black satire on American media and its portrayal of Black performers. Bamboozled was Lee’s first major box office bomb, but both then and now, it remains a searing, audacious portrait of Hollywood and the desperate chase for fame — and one of his only three films to grace the Criterion Collection (along with Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, respectively).

Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated TV exec who is constantly belittled and undermined by his boss (Michael Rapaport) for not being “Black enough.” To get fired, Pierre and his assistant (Jada Pinkett Smith) create a modern minstrel TV show that unwittingly (and disturbingly) becomes a success. Lee yields intentionally uncomfortable imagery like a jagged mirror, with anger and resentment for the media machine’s handling of race practically radiating out of the silver screen. It’s no surprise that the film alienated audiences and critics alike, many of whom didn’t respond well in kind. And while some of its delivery can be heavy-handed, Bamboozled is still a powerful and poignant look at the contradictions Black creatives struggle with to succeed.

4. BlacKkKlansman (2018)

It’s hard to believe that, after 30 (mostly) celebrated years in the industry, Lee had never been nominated for a Best Director Academy Award. But that all changed with this surprise hit that certainly touches on many of the themes of Lee’s previous work. Even better, BlacKkKlansman captured his first competitive Oscar, winning Best Adapted Screenplay for Ron Stallworth’s incredible autobiographical book.

John David Washington has a star-making turn as Stallworth, a rookie cop who teams with his Jewish co-worker (Adam Driver) to infiltrate their local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. While it definitely plays as popcorn cinema, with some intense set pieces and laugh-out-loud scenarios, it still “carries the urgent and unmistakably foul stench of truth,” EW’s review says of the film. “But Lee isn’t trying to observe niceties or be coy. He wants to rub our noses in the ugliness of the now. These days, the stakes are too high for subtlety,” perhaps best exemplified in his powerful final scene featuring real-life footage from the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.  

3. 25th Hour (2002)

Often referred to as the definitive movie that deals with the tragedy of Sept. 11 and its impact on New York, 25th Hour finds Lee operating outside of his wheelhouse in telling the story of a drug dealer (Edward Norton) in his last hours of freedom before starting a prison sentence. The city, still reeling from the attacks, is as much a mournful character as it is a window into life in the aftermath.

This is some of Lee’s best character work, imbuing not only Norton, but Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brian Cox, and Rosario Dawson with meaty, soulful parts as his friend, father, and lover. Norton’s “F— you” scene in the mirror of his father’s bar remains one of the most memorable and telling character monologues since the turn of the millennium, and the touching finale ends the film on a hopeful (if false) note. It’s one of the director’s best, one EW’s critic compared to Malcolm X and Clockers for making “his hero’s dread palpable, and though 25th Hour lacks the glittering brilliance of those films, I was held by the toughness and pity of Lee’s gaze.”

2. Malcolm X (1992)

Some stories are a perfect match for a director, and in Malcolm X, Lee harnesses his frustrations — with the media, its double standards, and the broader biases Black people face every day — into a powerful three-hour plus opus. It’s hard to imagine anyone else telling as vivid a story of the Civil Rights activist, who fought passionately on behalf of Black people in the 1960s and is of parallel paramountcy to Martin Luther King Jr., though with a differing philosophy to his non-violence. Anchored by an Oscar-nominated performance from Denzel Washington, EW’s grade A review deemed Malcolm X “a triumph, an intimate and engrossing biographical saga that is also one of the most passionate political films ever made in this country” and one where Lee masters “a new level of subtlety and emotional vividness.”

The development and release of the film led to a resurgence in popularity for the activist, a well-deserved reassessment of his life, increases in sales of his autobiography, the popularity of an “X” hat as a fashion accessory, and the introduction of this historic figure to an entirely new generation.

1. Do the Right Thing (1989)

Not only Lee’s masterwork but arguably one of the greatest films of all time, Do the Right Thing captures the highs and lows, tensions and tragedies of a Brooklyn neighborhood on a sweltering summer day. Everything works here, from the stellar performances to the hip-hop, soul, and funk-infused soundtrack (led by Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) to Lee’s sharp dialogue and angular shooting style. New York in the late ’80s was a powder keg of racial violence, and the film accurately captures the frustration and despair many Black citizens of the city felt, many of which ripple into our present day.

Upon its release, the death of a Black character culminating in a riot led to spirited (and often ignorant) discussions of responding to oppression with violence and where the greater threat truly lies. Though once considered extremely controversial (with certain narrow audiences fearing it would incite race riots), the film has since been reassessed several times in light of the shifting political climate in the U.S. and the continued assault on Black men by police. 

Similar to Green Book‘s feel-good race relations tale winning Best Picture over BlackKkKlansman‘s unflinching portrait in 2019, Do the Right Thing received nominations for its screenplay and Danny Aiello’s supporting actor, but was overlooked as Driving Miss Daisy captured the top honor in 1990. We’ve come a long way, but honestly, Lee’s best film is as relevant now as ever.

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